Progress Not Perfection in Addiction Recovery
Believe it or not, the most important step in addiction recovery is the very first one – choosing to get better.
From this point on, it’s about taking one step at the time, at one’s pace.
As long as you stay on the right path, moving in the right direction, a few stumbles here and there mean nothing. A person in recovery is bound to encounter many roadblocks. The most difficult ones come from within in the form of negative feelings on the lack of results.
Some even struggle with who they are without their drug of choice. But most often, many fail to acknowledge that though quitting is important, it is not the end of the journey.
Progress, not perfection
Or how it is better known to people who are not in therapy – ‘one day at a time.’
Humans are not perfect and we all make mistakes. But mistakes are an important part of life and allow us to grow and better ourselves.
Once they are made, we can learn from them and develop a toolset for fighting future challenges. Also, perfectionism turns every small defeat into a war lost.
Making peace with the fact that we are most likely to stumble somewhere is essential for long term success.
Taking away the burden of perfectionism makes it easier for us to see everything that we have accomplished, and not that we have not reached our goal yet.
In dealing with addiction, trying to be perfect often sets unrealistic expectations, instead of allowing individuals to progress at their own pace.
Rushing towards a goal prevents us from taking the time to understand ourselves and our weaknesses while taking the time we need and analysing the mistakes we made teaches us what makes us turn to drugs and alcohol.
Dangers of expecting perfection in recovery
As noted by Dr John D. Kelly , perfection, in general, is detrimental to one’s happiness and mental well being. It is most likely to lead to stress, burnout and anxiety in normal circumstances.
These things on their own often can lead to addiction, so they are even more harmful to a recovering addict.
As said, humans are not perfect and perfection is not sustainable in the long-term. For most, it will not be something they can achieve. It also needs a perfect environment and perfect circumstances, which is unrealistic.
Everything would need to be within our control, which is simply not possible. On top of it all, it prevents us from enjoying all the non-alcohol and drug-related pleasures in life – the love of our family and friends, the beauty of being a part of this world.
If perfection is the number one need for a person’s sobriety, they are most likely to relapse.
Focusing too much on perfection: the signs
Perfection is unattainable and everyone is bound to have bad days and make some bad choices. If an individual fails to see their mistakes as a teaching moment, they are most likely going to get discouraged.
The general negativity and dissatisfaction can make their drug of choice seem very desirable again. Slowly becoming more defeated, they are most likely to relapse.
One of the signs to look for is a bad mood – most likely in the form of depression or irritability. Struggling to deal with day to day life or withdrawal from friends and family are also strong indicators that things are not going well.
Why do people ignore the concept of progress?
People go into recovery because they want to live better, healthier and happier lives. Yet, humans easily fall prey to the beast call instant-gratification. Ex-addicts were getting it from various substances all the time, and now this is yet another challenge they have to conquer.
It prevents them to examine what led them to drugs or alcohol in the first place, thus preventing them from getting real results.
Why progress is healthier than perfection
The most beneficial part of focussing on progress are all the small victories we get to enjoy. One week sober, one month sober, one year sober…
Concentrating on small victories  allows us to enjoy all the good we have already done, instead of concentrating on the achievement that is still far away.
It also allows a person to live in the now. Their entire life is not just about that one day when everything is perfect (that might or might not come).
Also, by facing failure and learning from the mistakes, not only are they learning how to deal with temptations, but also how to be stronger and braver people in other aspects of their lives.
Recovery: the dangers
When ignoring the progress, it is very easy to fall into some not so beneficial patterns. These behaviours might seem like a helpful tool in the treatment for addiction, but they are often not.
First one is replacing one addiction with another. It often happens during the treatment for the previous addiction and is no more than substituting one substance or behaviour for another. The key to treating this is getting down to the root and dealing with the compulsive urges and actions.
Becoming a dry drunk or stinking thinking describes falling into the same negative patterns related to the addiction, minus the substance. It’s often marked by resentment, bitterness, passing on the blame to others, selfishness and self-centredness, schadenfreude, pessimism, negative attitudes to everything and everyone, etc.
They might be sober, but their behaviour is as toxic to themselves and their loved ones, as it would be if they were actually on something. Practising mindfulness, journaling and gratitude may help people in recovery not to get down this road.
Relapse is the most dangerous of all. Many individuals who have relapsed had more difficulties or were completely unable to get sober. On top of that, addiction can hit a lot harder second time around. Those who are at the beginning of their journey are at the highest risk.
It doesn’t happen overnight and there are many signs , like over-confidence, getting stuck in recovery and unstable emotions. Social support and therapy are the best help that can be provided in this case.
How to progress in recovery
Not shying away from hard work and potential pain is the most important part of recovery. Feeling that it should be all smooth sailing is the worst mistake. Only through challenges can we grow stronger, and only through honesty will we be able to find the cause of our addictions.
Finding a new purpose in life beyond getting better is instrumental – once recovery becomes a tool or a stepping stone to something greater, the whole process gains more value and meaning.
In the short term, finding a hobby would not hurt. It mind seem trivial, but many psychologists find a beneficial correlation between hobbies and mental health. When it comes to mood disorders, next to medication, any doctor will also prescribe an engagement in different activities.
Elders are encouraged to participate in social activities to keep their brains healthy. For ex-addicts, boredom can be another relapse trigger, so avoiding it by filling one’s time with something productive adds another benefit.
The importance of forgiveness in recovery
Forgiveness beyond its spiritual and social meanings boils down to letting go of anger, resentment and other negative feelings. That way we also let go of stress and anxiety.
Forgiving others in recovery can help repair relationships and build social support that may prevent a relapse. Releasing anger and bitterness can also prevent dry drunk syndrome. Forgiving yourself prevents the need for perfectionism in recovery.
In the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, step 8, making amends, is important because it makes us face those we have wronged and allows us to forgive ourselves for the things we have done at our lowest.
Taking the time and being sincere is vital. It might be a long and rocky path, but it is one worth taking.
The productivity in failing
Failures in both life and recovery might seem devastating, but they should be treated as teachable moments. No one can advance in life without adversity. When we make bad choices or if a treatment has failed us, we are in a position to ask why.
Why did this go wrong for us? Answering this question allows us to understand ourselves and our addiction better.
Having an understanding of what has not worked out and why is very important for an individual’s progress. Being able to turn failures into something productive is a sign that they have a healthy approach to their recovery.
Knowing yourself in recovery
Or “making an inventory of ourselves” as the AA would say it.
To put it simply, there is no recovery without introspection. Once we know why we turned to drugs or alcohol in the beginning, we will learn what our triggers are. We must learn what pain we tried to self-medicate, what holes were we trying to fill.
Those who do not know themselves, their strengths and weaknesses, are doomed to fall into the same traps. They are also robbed of the tools they already hold in their hands, that can help them on their journey.
The importance of understanding trauma
Addiction is not just destructive to the individual, but also people around them. Just as the addict will need help recovering, their closest will as well. Children are the ones that are hit the hardest, and they might even develop feelings of responsibility for their family member’s addiction.
Their needs must be addressed thoroughly because they may face development issues as well as a predisposition towards substance abuse .
Fortunately, trauma can be treated through counselling and group support. If possible, the ex-addict can assist in some way – being able to deal with some of the impacts of their addiction can help their recovery as well.
Why fellowship in recovery is key
Social support comes in many forms, and this is just one of them. The fellowship includes people who are in the same boat and are all striving for the same goal.
While family, friends, counsellors and sponsor all have a part they can play, people who are going through the same thing as us at the same time will be the easiest to relate to.
They will be more compassionate and more understanding of the bad days. They make us feel that we are not alone.
Seeing one person power through their challenges may inspire another to do the same. Helping another member can boost one’s feeling of usefulness. And when the going gets tough, they will understand that struggle and may keep a member from relapsing.
Ways you can progress
As mentioned, first discard the pursuit of perfection.
Build a good social support network. Your friends and family most likely want to help in some way – tell them what you need. Join a fellowship and connect with people who are dealing with the same things.
Find a sponsor – they will know what you are going through and they will also know some things that may help.
Sponsor someone if you are at that stage of your recovery. Helping someone else will keep you sober and will give you the motivation to stay strong.
Journal, meditate, practice introspection and mindfulness daily – whatever you might need to stay in touch with your thoughts and emotions, and not get triggered. Don’t be afraid of looking into the things that went wrong and try to learn from everything.
And if you fall, take a moment, a deep breath, and pick yourself up again. As long as you work hard and never give up, you will get to where you want to be.
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